North & South - The Game16 Sep 2012 0
Mobile devices: iPad (iOS 3.2 or later)
Publisher: bitComposer Entertainment AG
Developer: bitComposer Entertainmet AG
With the advent of touch technology, I had been anxiously awaiting the introduction of strategy games for the iPad. I had imagined a spectrum of available games from light square space based RPGs to full on ?zoomable? battlefields, literally at the touch of your fingertips. Now, I know that the iPad and its counterparts aren't exactly common amongst wargamers, and if they were asked what we imagined a touch-based game would look like, we would think of laying models on sprawling hex maps or pushing Axis & Allies pieces with a dowel rod while singing La Marseillaise. Nevertheless, there is great potential in tablet based strategy games. The question for me was: Where did North and South fit on the spectrum?
North & South - The Game, as the name might indicate, is a remake of an Atari game of the same name about the American Civil War. This redressing, produced by bitComposer Entertainment AG, pits the player against another player, or an AI which has three difficulty levels denoted by the number of stars below their robotic portrait. The player can choose to take control of either the Union or the Confederacy in a bid to eliminate the other army and claim victory over the entire nation. The game is played over a map of the Eastern and Midwestern portions of the United States, with four scenarios representing the four years of conflict (1861-1864). Whichever faction the player chooses has its own set of armies composed of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, which can be moved from state to state. Battles ensue if any opposing armies collide during turns. The player must then command representations of his or her troops on a battlefield that vaguely matches the terrain features on the campaign map. While the overall objective is to eliminate all enemy armies, capturing cities and certain other special points of interest help to recruit more soldiers for the fight.
I tried my best to not hold any high hopes or preconceptions when I launched the game. As the game loaded, I immediately noticed the atmosphere was that of a lighthearted affair. The graphics were cartoony, inviting a casual environment. The sound effects and music swayed from the rustic to the campy, which gave it a relaxing feeling. The font was both exaggerated but easy to read, reminding me of many similar styled games of the tower defense genre. The skewed portraits and the cabin-like main menu screen conveyed a ?friendliness? portion of the game. I prepared myself, therefore, for something more on the casual side.
I had decided to play as the Confederates, thinking that perhaps it would make it more challenging as they were the historical underdogs. The map screen seemed easy enough to understand. Any gamer who plays strategy games recognizes the importance of the simple overview (strategic) map of provinces (states in this case) and armies. The only complaint I had with the overview map was the unresponsiveness of the drag and drop controls, which sometimes caused me to make false moves. I found that very annoying since it was the ?tactility? of the game which was put in the spotlight, being a tablet game, and it was failing in that department. Nonetheless, I went about my business expanding the Confederacy northwards; and it was not long before I collided with a Union army and entered into the battlefield mode.
My first forays into the actual tactical portion of the game were a disaster. I was expecting a challenge and it was indeed a great challenge, but not from a strategic point of view, one of gameplay. With no immediate tutorial scenario except for the odd pop-up here and there, when I entered my first army vs. army battle I was so confused that I was slaughtered outright by the opposing Union forces. I had to open up the actual menu and find the obscure ?help? button in order to give me an overlay of what the battlefield interface was all about. I found this rather annoying since the game itself did not follow any ?usual? strategy game convention for tactical combat?such as drag and maneuver. Rather, it uses an odd ?joystick? system that only allows you to select one unit at a time. In fact, the unit itself does not even attack on its own. You have to instead mash an ?attack? button, otherwise your unit will simply stand there with ?Stonewall? resolve, taking a beating until dead. I understand that the attention to fidelity to the old game must have been of importance to the developers; but redressing old Atari joystick games on such a new platform seems like such a waste.
I was as heartbroken as my grey troops were after the battle. I had expected at least some resemblance of actual warfare where troop maneuvering or composition played a role in the outcome of a battle. Instead, it was more akin to playing a game of Frogger where one adeptly avoids onrushing cavalry as they run past you. Or the occasional artillery round, with three sprites representing a whole regiment, while mashing a button just to fire the guns. As much as I tried going into the game with as little expectations as possible, I had at least expected (perhaps wrongly) some kind of tactical ingenuity. To be fair, however, if one were simply going to buy this game for the nostalgia of the old Atari game, the system itself remains relatively faithful.
To say that this three dollar game was enjoyable as a tactical game is like saying that Galaga and Star Wars: Empire at War can be sold side by side in the same genre. In other words: the buyer should be explicitly aware that this is a remake of a very old game, rather than a new incarnation or a strategy game. After mastering the basic arcade-like controls, the battles became amazingly easy. A simple holding-down of the fire button, for the artillery to eliminate the other artillery, negates any long range threat. Then you simply stand in wait with your infantry, pressing the fire button over and over until the enemy units come into range and allow themselves to be shot in the face. I even tried it on the highest difficulty, and it refused to get any more complicated or harder?the same motions achieved the same thing.
I have nothing against simple games. Most people enjoy simple repetitive games when they are interesting, such as many tower defense games which are popular on the new generation of mobile devices. Unfortunately, for North & South, nothing interesting or new ever happens with each battle. Both sides have the same kinds of units (but the richness of the different quality and morale of the real Northern and Southern troops is enough to color and flavor the experience more than the simple blue and grey uniforms); both sides could use the same tactics to win; and except for the final 1864 scenario, both sides have an equal footing on the strategic overview map.
I know that some might say that I am being unfair to this game since it is a ?retro? remake. If there are die hard North & South fans out there, then I have nothing but heartfelt congratulations for them. They have a fitting tribute which remains mostly faithful, despite the clumsy touch-controls for a game which really should thrive on a keyboard format. However, I find that the most enduring old games, such as Diplomacy, have a more universal aspect to them: cunningness or emergent properties (such as unique scenarios each time played). In essence, I can't find anything interesting about this game aside from nostalgia.
There were some extras that came along as optional. Mexicans and Indians would occasionally attack, but were nothing more than attrition modifiers in certain states. I attempted to incur the wrath of these two peoples in hopes that I would be able to fight an army that wasn't a clone of my own, but instead only received cute animations of arrows falling on my head or bullets from Mexican troops (indicating that I had lost manpower)?in other words, these two additions were irrelevant. There was also a mini-game mode which activates whenever you attempt to take a town or steal gold from a riverboat. These mini-games were composed of a soldier from your faction running and climbing through a ?Donkey Kong-esque? platform, with a town or boat backdrop (respectively) while enemy soldiers appeared out of windows to shoot at you. You could duck behind crates (you must also do this to reload) by pressing the ?Duck? button to avoid bullets. You can duck for as long as you need to, but it pauses your soldier's progress and you only have a limited amount of time to complete each stage. Eliminating enemy soldiers from windows is as easy and simple as tapping on their faces. It was like Time Crisis or Whack a Mole, with none of what made either exciting or fun. I actually thought the original game's version of capturing cities was more interesting with its brawling mechanic.
Overall, the game was a total let down for someone who enjoys even a semblance of tactical forethought or strategic maneuvering relating to the American Civil War. Even the historical accuracy of the game ends at the title placards before each scenario?almost nothing else is accurate. European reinforcements, lack of blockade, economic parity, unit equality, and the fact that the South is attempting to conquer the North instead of achieving independence, are just some of the core elements of the Civil War genre that have been violated. In the end, I would not even say it's worth the three dollars. The only slightly amusing aspect of it was setting up two AI players to fight each other. Perhaps, if I let it run long enough it might tell me: ?Greetings, James. A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess??
However, in all fairness, if I was reviewing this game in the light and lens of a lover of North & South for the Atari console and wanted a game faithful to it, then this remains faithful even in its campy aesthetics.
Review written by: James Tanaleon
About James Tanaleon
James Tanaleon grew up in the sunny suburban sprawl of Orange County, California and has had a long history of console and computer gaming thanks to his avid gaming father and his tech savvy friends. While receiving his education from both the University of California in Irvine and Franciscan University in Ohio?graduating with a Bachelor's Degree in Western and World Literature?he never lost his enjoyment for games. During this time he also cultivated his knowledge in music, history, religion, and international studies. He currently works in Orange County as lead writer for the startup game company Diecast Studios LLC and produces freelance writing on the side. James once served as editor-in-chief of Paradox Interactive Forum's monthly magazine The AARlander, and has written over a thousand pages of after action reports in his preferred genres of grand strategy and RPG.
Forum username: Aristocrat
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